Absurdity, Allegory and China

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Internet Freedom Speech: The Morning After

January 22nd, 2010 · No Comments

I have slept “on the speech” and I must be frank, nothing more came to me that I didn’t go to bed with. Perhaps, you might think, reading Samuel Beckett’s Molloy as I nodded off didn’t help, but I’d argue that anything Beckett is required for preparing for the discussion of any topic that is described by an abstract noun modified by the buzzworded adjective “21stCentury,” and this definitely includes “statecraft.” (For further abuses of this particular adjective, read almost anything that has been written in the last fifteen years that outlines any institutional vision in the education field, from mission statements to PR flyers.)

As the assessments are rolling in, it is curious that almost all of them, even those praising the speech, can’t really lay a finger on what it really means. Perhaps that’s the nature of “major foreign policy” speeches announcing what I naively assume would be clear policy shifts, and, if not shifts then clarifications of policy fuzziness. I stepped away from the audio feed last night shaking my head – a head, I might add, that is still shaking.

There has been much written on China, the internet and Google’s “we’re not going to take it anymore” wavy line in the sand. I wonder how long it will be before it gets a bit more straightened out? I have been paying particular attention to three people who have long-established credibility and knowledge of the issues involved in China and/or global political issues concerning the internet: Rebecca MacKinnon, James Fallows and Evgeny Morozov. Though Morozov is not as intimately familiar with China as MacKinnon and Fallows, he has been heavily involved with issues affecting the “Internet’s impact on global politics.”) Each of them were involved in the New American Foundation’s discussion Authority, Meet Technology: Will China’s Great Firewall Hold? the day before SecState Clinton delivered her speech, which I wrote about here.  As expected, each of them has already weighed in on Clinton’s speech, though I expect that they will address it again:
Fallows: A momentous 40 hours, leading to Clinton/China/Internet; (updated) More on Hillary’s speech
MacKinnon: Clinton speaks on Internet freedom
Morozov: Is Hillary Clinton launching a cyber Cold War?

I am not going to get into a critique of their initial takes on the speech, but I do encourage you to read them. I wrote yesterday here: “I am not hopeful of anything but ‘more of the same,’ but I also hope I am very wrong. If I am, I am quite willing to say so here tomorrow.” Well, I am not willing to say that yesterday’s prognostication was wrong. Again, it is too soon to make any judgment, since both specific solutions and realistically projected outcomes were lacking in the speech. I said last night at the conclusion of the speech that it felt like a lot of big and very fluffy pillows being thrown around, and my view has not changed over the last 12 hours. I feel solidly in Morozov’s corner, and if you read his post you’ll understand why I do not see this speech as much more than what we’ve seen before: a political show of hope that is, at this point, toothless. From Morozov: “Overall, I was disappointed with the speech — it lacked depth. I didn’t sense any coherent intellectual vision underpinning the State Department’s digital strategy.”

Regarding China: Fallows mentions that “Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Egypt — this is not the grouping of countries that the Chinese government, in its recent sense of rise to superpower status, is used to being lumped with.” Good point, but not, at this point, news. That it is coming from the U.S. SecState in a high profile, public speech is, or better yet, was, since this statement could not have caught Zhongnanhai by surprise, especially after the week they’ve just had. If Google had not pulled the rug from under their feet last week, I think they would be spinning at the moment, but it’s fair to say that they were steeled for this.

One last point: NGO, for better or worse, connotes “good work, low pay, planet/people love, etc.” It’s a term that conjures up “the good fight.”  For anyone whose eyes still water when they hear the term, I would like you to know that the Chinese government is on to this, and they have done their very best to not only de-fang foreign NGOs within their borders – especially in the contentious Tibetan areas – but they’ve also learned that the term equates to money. Over the last several years there has been a dramatic rise in domestic, homespun NGOs within China, most of which have been corralled into obeisance by “unofficial’ oversight. When there is money involved, you can rest assured that the government controls the gate to anyone who wants to swim in that pool. (For a look at how a clean drinking water project in Qinghai province was capitalized upon by the local government, have a look here.) Each time SecState Clinton mentioned NGOs last night I rolled my eyes. I kept imagining Chinese locals in the countryside with mobile devices digitally assessing the CCP in collective village meetings where everyone’s grading codes would be checked as they pushed the ‘enter’ button. And all under the watchful eye of Chinese NGOs.

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